Building Learning Teams

Beef farmers and ranchers often find it overwhelming to synthesize all the production and financial information necessary for profitability. An Integrated Resource Management (IRM) learning team can help formulate a specific management action plan designed for current economic challenges. Virtually every state Extension service has a state-sponsored IRM education program or something similar. These

Beef farmers and ranchers often find it overwhelming to synthesize all the production and financial information necessary for profitability. An Integrated Resource Management (IRM) learning team can help formulate a specific management action plan designed for current economic challenges.

Virtually every state Extension service has a state-sponsored IRM education program or something similar. These programs' primary benefit is the integration of financial and production analysis into a single management information system. A second advantage is that management recommendations are tailored to specific beef cow herds.

North Dakota IRM Program

North Dakota is one example of a state where beef producers are tailoring land-grant research and Extension recommendations to their specific beef cow herds. This learning team concept can be applied to any beef operation in the U.S. and Canada.

North Dakota's IRM program is based on identifying and analyzing the production and economic “on-farm” facts of a specific herd. The next step is to assemble a learning team to study and utilize these facts to increase profitability.

These learning teams help develop 12-month, management-action plans tailored to a particular herd manager's ability, goals and resource base. Here's how these action plans are constructed.

North Dakota's IRM program begins with three fact-gathering components.

  • First, herd-performance records are summarized through the Cow Herd Analysis Performance System (CHAPS).

  • Next, a detailed range inventory is conducted and analyzed, and a grazing system is designed for the producer. Recommended stocking rates are also calculated, and a year-long forage program is presented using PASTURE software.

  • Finally, economic facts are analyzed through the Financial and Reproductive Management System (IRM-FARMS).

Written reports for each of the three areas are prepared for the beef herd manager, along with an interpretation and the management implications. Once the producer understands the facts about his herd, he's ready to assemble his IRM learning team.

Learning Team Members

The roster of each learning team is left to the herd manager's discretion. He's encouraged to invite anyone who may be helpful in identifying profit-choking bottlenecks or suggesting scientific ways of removing them.

We recommend the herd manager invite his banker, veterinarian, feed dealer, soil conservation specialist or range scientist, farm business management specialist, Extension economist, Extension animal scientist and, of course, his county agent. We also encourage inviting other farmers or ranchers to participate. The broader the makeup of the learning team, the better the management action plan for coping with the current market.

Several team members will play key roles.

  • The county agent is responsible for helping to invite local professionals to participate, writing the minutes of the meeting, helping to execute the action plan and ensuring that all facts are gathered in order to measure progress the following year.

  • The Extension animal scientist chairs the learning-team meeting. He conducts the herd performance data review and assists the county agent in organizing the learning team.

  • The Extension economist (or farm business management specialist) presents the beef herd's economic and financial facts. This person also compares those facts to regional and state benchmark herds, identifies economic strengths and weaknesses in the rancher's business, and makes economic projections for the herd, given the current production practices.

How The Teams Work

Once the “on-farm” facts are collected, analyzed, written up and understood by the study herd's manager, the rancher is ready to call together his learning team. Some producers collect two or more years of herd performance and economic analyses before assembling their learning teams. However, if the current down market is the motivation for forming a learning team, then the sooner it's assembled, the better.

The best sessions are often held at the producer's kitchen table, a place where he controls the entire session. When a rancher places his entire business and life on the table in front of a half-dozen professionals, pressures appear.

The producer should lead off by briefing his learning team on his business and family goals. Next, the entire team needs to review the complete set of facts relating to that herd.

When team members shift their focus from personal perceptions to hard production and financial facts, reality sets in. Members consequently abandon any competitive stances and work in earnest cooperation on tailored, profit-enhancing management strategies.

The team should seek to illuminate only the profit bottlenecks that the herd manager can actually influence. Next, they should focus on identifying a solution for removing one or more of these bottlenecks using individual team members' own scientific disciplines.

This consensus approach creates the key to learning teams — integration. As each team member discusses the problem under study from his disciplinary perspective, other members gain an understanding of the other disciplines' approach to problem solving. The ensuing debate harmonizes the management refinements in one area with the facts of other areas, and every team member learns from each other.

The conclusion of a learning team session must be the development of a 12-month, profit action plan for the beef producer and his county agent. Typically, these action plans focus on the reduction of one major bottleneck over the next 12 months. The county agent ensures that all necessary land-grant resources are available to the producer.

The Session Structure

While beef producers may meet individually with members of their IRM learning team during the year, I recommend an annual session with the entire team. This meeting should take place immediately after the annual gathering and analysis of the herd's facts.

Each team member needs to listen to the entire discussion and to feel comfortable debating the problems and opportunities. You can be assured that an inclusive session will lead to some informative management discussions. Over the past several years, some big dollars have been made by North Dakota IRM cooperators via these learning teams.

A typical learning team session should last no more than four hours. Here's a typical agenda:

1 p.m. — After the learning team has assembled around the table and introduced themselves, the producer shares his long-term family and business goals. It's also important that he share some of his priority questions, so they can be taken into account during the session.

1:15 p.m. — The herd's production records are reviewed so all team members gain an understanding of these facts. If production records aren't available, review the calving book, sale slips, etc. The area livestock specialist/animal scientist leads this discussion.

1:45 p.m. — The economic and financial facts of the beef cow herd are reviewed. The livestock economist leads this discussion.

2:30 p.m. — The entire team works through the producer's priority questions.

3:30 p.m. — The entire team identifies and discusses the bottlenecks to profitability.

4:30 p.m. — An action plan is formulated for the next year. The area livestock specialist/animal scientist leads this discussion.

5 p.m. — Meeting adjourns.

Minutes are taken and distributed by the county agent as soon after the meeting as possible. These minutes are reviewed at the beginning of next year's learning team session.

Involve Local Professionals

We encourage the use of local team members. This is a critical component in coping with a down market. The use of such professionals ensures that a cadre of locally trained team members will be built into your community, which reduces your team's future reliance on state Extension personnel.

Having local, professional participation will have far-reaching impacts on the services and advice available to other farmers and ranchers in the future. The ultimate goal of IRM should be to localize the fact gathering and analysis process, as well as the learning team membership. In this way, producers achieve an intensive, beef farm or ranch management system operating primarily with local people and local resources.